Maybe it’s a peculiar rash, a twinge in your knee post-workout, or a headache that won’t go away. Whether it’s out of curiosity or concern, you reach for your smartphone or laptop, hoping an online search will help you figure out what’s going on. While you just know this will lead to further anxiety, it’s hard to stop yourself. If it’s any consolation, you’re not alone.
In a published in Public Health Reports, some 74 percent of Americans hunted for health information online before seeing a healthcare provider. Not surprisingly, those numbers since the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent , some 18 percent of Americans (about 60 million people) rely on social media platforms for healthcare information and guidance on chronic conditions. “We live in an age of instant access, and we’re used to having a world of information right at our fingertips,” says Maggie Williams, MD, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based physician and medical director for , one of the leading virtual care providers in the U.S.
“But sleuthing for symptoms online—particularly when you’re not following up with a doctor—can be a slippery slope,” she cautions, leading you down a rabbit hole of misinformation and unfounded worry. Inconsistent intel The biggest drawback to self-diagnosis by search engine is the varying quality and reliability of the information on the internet.
Anyone can publish content online, which increases your chances of being misled (intentionally or not). Alongside reputable medical websites and scholarly articles, you may be directed to an outdated page, a trending thread on a message board, or an influencer’s social media post. Even the most trustworthy symptom-checker apps and websites lack the patient-specific context needed (family history, genetic makeup, lifestyle, etc.) to make an informed diagnosis. Getty Images Many physical and mental health conditions have overlapping symptoms, which can leave you feeling overwhelmed and confused.
Certain keywords, like “headache” and “chest pain,” can return just as often as less serious ones, even though the odds of having a brain tumor or fatal heart attack are far lower than those for caffeine withdrawal or heartburn. This makes it easy to latch onto the worst-case scenario. Spending hours obsessing about real and imagined ills can take an emotional toll as well.
In a follow-up to the user-experience study, reported feeling more anxious about a perceived medical condition than they did before they logged on. “On the other side of the coin, you might feel falsely reassured when you’re actually suffering from something that’s truly worrisome or life-threatening,” Williams says.
“This could lead to treatment delays and put you at risk for poor health outcomes.” Cyberchondria Cyberchondria—a subset of illness anxiety (similar to hypochondria)—is characterized by excessive or repeated use of the internet to research symptoms or medical conditions and a heightened, disruptive level of anxiety and distress.
“This is something I see on a daily basis,” Williams says. “What starts as a casual search or specific health query evolves into a compulsion to search for new symptoms or validate symptoms they’re currently having.” Along with this constant desire to search for your symptoms, other signs that you are experiencing cyberchondria include a sense of suspicion that the diagnosis you've received from a health professional was incorrect and a heightened level of stress and worry. “What starts as a specific health query evolves into a compulsion to search for new symptoms.” “Cyberchondria can interfere with day-to-day functioning and mental well-being,” Williams continues.
“Some people may become so fearful about their well-being that they make unnecessary appointments with doctors.” In findings from a published in Comprehensive Psychiatry in 2020, behavioral problems occur in 40 percent of people with cyberchondria, including frequent consultations with medical specialists and physicians and an increase in internet searches. How to prevent cyberchondria That’s not to say you should swear off using the internet to educate yourself about health or healthcare issues.
“There are plenty of websites where you can obtain reliable and accurate health information,” says Williams. The and are two. Still, she emphasizes that scouring the web for medical intel should complement, rather than replace, a consultation with a trusted physician. Healthcare providers are trained to consider many things beyond a symptom list to reach the right diagnosis, says Williams.
“Based on your specific situation, they can recommend appropriate tests or treatments to guide you toward the right course of action.” Getty Images “Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for people to take time to prioritize their health in the way that they should,” Williams continues. It might be a demanding job, caregiving responsibilities or logistical problems that make getting to a doctor’s office or urgent-care clinic difficult.
Virtual healthcare providers like provide convenient access to board-certified doctors who can assess your symptoms and provide the care you need often within 15 minutes or less of requesting a visit. Hearing from a trusted expert is a wholly different experience than stumbling onto a frighteningly impersonal internet forum for health-related wisdom, and knowing that you're receiving guidance from a vetted expert can greatly diminish your cyberchondria. MDLIVE provides fast, easy access to board-certified doctors for urgent care, primary care, dermatology, and psychiatry—as well as talk therapy with licensed therapists, and it’s available at a low or no cost to the patient through many health insurance plans.
Depending on your technology setup and preferences, you can “see” a doctor from wherever you are via phone, a secure video chat, or the . “I have patients who will contact me on their lunch break at work or right after a shift, so we can start to dig into their symptoms and sort out fact from fiction,” Williams says.
This means you’ll never have to address your health concerns alone, while still maintaining flexibility in your personal life. Cyberchondria be gone.